Rising from the Flames: New Life for an Old iPad

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

On December 30th 2021, a wildfire incinerated nearly a thousand homes and retail establishments in Boulder County Colorado. I live a safe 8 miles from the destruction, but others were not as fortunate. I know many families who lost everything.

My spouse and I decided to move into my father-in-law's guest suite and rent our house to one of the displaced families. Our new tenants tell a terrifying story. A police cruiser announced "get out, now!" over a loudspeaker as it drove through their neighborhood. The air was thick with smoke as they fled with other panicked families. They escaped with their smartphones, laptops, three cats, and little else. Their loss and grief is beyond words.

For many reasons, we left our wi-fi network in place. Our tenants had nothing and needed the wi-fi an printer. I also host a web server. It made sense for me to leave my Mac Mini desktop and drop by as-needed to help them with any tech issues and perform routine server maintenance. This meant I'd need to assemble a new computing environment from what I brought to my temporary home: my iPhone SE, a Bluetooth keyboard, a pair of wired earbuds, an Aftershockz headset, my Braille display - and my fourth-generation iPad from 2012.

Why do I still have this truly ancient iPad? A fair question. It's old, outdated, and heavy as a doorstop. It only has 16GB and won't upgrade beyond iOS 10.3.3. I kept it for the large screen, useful for trying to see photos or videos with my remaining crappy vision. At the same time, my eyesight has become so poor that I could not justify upgrading to a more recent model. It fell into disuse and I simply never got around to recycling it. So, here it is, and now I would find out if I could use this old iPad as a desktop replacement.

I'm retired and write for a hobby. I need Zoom on my iPhone to participate in my writing groups, and Scrivener and Google Docs on my iPad to write, review, edit, and make comments. I knew how to do all this on my Mac Mini with ease. Now I would need to re-learn everything. IOS wasn't foreign to me, but using Zoom, Scrivener, and Google Docs as iOS apps would challenge me with a user experience that was very different from my Mac.

The first hurdle was to see if the iPad was usable. It charges slow, but plugging it in overnight restores it to 100%. It burns through that charge in the course of a day with the screen on. Screen curtain to the rescue, which cuts that in half. I was worried that the pathetic 16GB of memory would be a problem, but after I deleted apps I no longer use and images I can no longer see, I now have about 6GB free, far more than I need for my writing tasks. I began to cautiously hope this crazy setup might actually work.

I do a lot with Scrivener on my Mac Mini, but on iOS I've used it for little more than note-taking. After a couple hours of exploring the iOS app, I was delighted to find that it was nearly as powerful as the macOS version. In fact, I even discovered some cool features unavailable on the Mac, such as compiling documents directly to Google Docs. Sharing with my writing group couldn't be easier. That's a feature I'll miss if I ever return to Scrivener on my Mac Mini.

As you might expect, Google Docs was no walk in the park. Nothing I already knew about Docs on Mac applied to Docs on iOS, as if the iOS app developers weren't just a different group but were aliens in a distant galaxy. AppleVis turned out to be a great resource. I was able to read about problems others had encountered and pick up a few handy Bluetooth keyboard shortcuts along the way. But when it comes to learning any new user interface, there's no substitute for butt-in-the-chair, hands-on-the-keyboard exploration. Click everything. Swipe through all controls. Try each setting. After a few hours of poking and prodding and venting my frustration on the AppleVis forums, I discovered that I was able to use the Google Docs app to review and edit as effectively as on my Mac Mini. Thank you, AppleVis forum, for the help and tips.

I was afraid I would discover that an old iPad with outdated software was unusable. After all, each year brings new products and new versions, rich with must-have features. "That amazing device we sold you last year? It's crap! Get rid of it! Your life won't be complete without this new amazing device." That's the message we continually hear, explicitly in Apple sales and marketing events or implicitly with that little update badge on the App Store icon.

But, like a Phoenix rising from the flames, this iPad still lives. I'm composing this blog on it now. It served my needs ten years ago when I bought it and it still does exactly what I need it to. Is it slow and heavy? Yes. Did I encounter some bugs and quirks? Of course. But users on more updated platforms report their own headaches. I could've spent several hundred dollars on a new iPad running the latest iPad OS, and I can only imagine that I would've changed one set of problems for another.

I'm not saying we should all stop upgrading. I'm well aware that a new iPad can run circles around the boat anchor I'm typing into. I just wanted to share my surprise and joy at how wonderful this platform still works. There's a reason these old gadgets amazed us when they came out years ago. They are freaking awesome gadgets. They might appear a bit tarnished alongside the latest shiny iPads. But that doesn't make them any less incredible.



Submitted by Squirrel on Saturday, January 15, 2022

Mice post Paul.

I wish that the first generation iPhone SE I have in the back of a drawer had the same revival capabilities as your iPad.

I recently attempted to repurpose it, but its battery is so shot that its charge level plummets so fast that it's only possible purpose now is as a paperweight.

I hope that you are back in your own home soon.

Submitted by Skippy on Saturday, January 15, 2022


I don’t know if its abandoned, but Scrivener hasn’t been updated in 2 years.
My favorite writing app is Ulysses.
It’s subscription based, but you can either pay $5.99/month or $59.99 annually.
The app works extremely well with voiceover, & can be used on both Mac & iOS.
They have a user guide, & the guide contains a specific section just for us voiceover users.
If you use markdown, guess what? You can use it with Ulysses!
I’ve been using the app with braille screen input for a while, & love it.
If necessary, you can export to word & numerous other formats.
I love the “revision mode feature.
What that does, is check your text for spelling & other typographical errors, that can make it hard to read, & let’s you fix them in a user-friendly, accessible editor.
Feel free to contact me if you have any questions.

Submitted by PaulMartz on Saturday, January 15, 2022

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

The original iPhone SE was a masterpiece of design and still strikes me as the best smartphone I've ever owned.

I'll do you one better though. I still have my first-gen iPhone from 2007. I'm waiting for it to become a collector's item. LOL.

Submitted by PaulMartz on Saturday, January 15, 2022

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

I've heard a lot about Ulysses, and once I finally upgrade to a new iPad with latest iPad OS, I'll have to give it a test drive. But it would make me an outlier in my writing group - everyone else uses Scrivener or Word. Is there also a Mac OS version?

The Scrivener folks recently put out a survey to determine future directions for their iOS app. The fact that it is infrequently updated has an undeniable benefit: no surprising counterproductive changes to the user interface.

Submitted by OldBear on Sunday, January 16, 2022

I just finished erasing an iPhone 6 that had a swollen battery and separating screen. It's been sitting in storage for many years, and I needed to sign out of a few things to erase it. It seemed to charge up just fine, and I connected it to my new Wi-Fi, updated it to IOS 12X, pondered keeping it around as an iPod-like device, then zapped it and removed the SIM card.
It worries me with that swollen battery. Just one drop away from bursting into flames or something. One of these days, I plan to drop it off somewhere that recycles those types of things, along with a box full of dead lithium batteries and electronic junk.

Submitted by Dawn 👩🏻‍🦯 on Sunday, January 16, 2022

Hey Paul! Wonderful piece! I had an Ipad mini 4 from 2016, also 16GB. of space. Originally, when my folks bought it for me, we weren't sure if it'd be of much or any use. i didn't have a braille device at the time either. Well, that soon proved wrong. Soon, I was getting low storage warnings almost a few times a week, with audiobooks being a major storage hog. So, back in 2019, I got an Ipad go, with 128GB. of storage. I've been loving it! Using BSI. on it is amazing, and I love bigger screen size! That's easier for me to navigate than smaller screens, especially in portrait mode. But, my Ipad mini 4 got a new life. Now, my Dad uses it as his Ipad. The lack of storage isn't an issue, as he only uses it for Facebook, and to play games and his weather app. I hope you are backin your home soon, and I'm praying that the family you're renting to, along with theother families effected by the wildfires are able to be back on their feet soon. It's amazing how adaptable we are! :-) Again, great piece, and keep up the great work! :-)

Submitted by Wenwei on Sunday, January 16, 2022

Hi! It was such a pleasure reading this piece! Sometimes, it's good to be reminded of how older technologies, though clunky by today's standards, were absolute marvels when they first debuted.

I was happy to shortly correspond with you regarding Google Docs. Some of the "testing" that I did was influenced by the tests that you powered through on such an old iPad.

Enjoy your writing group! That sounds like a good time!

Submitted by PaulMartz on Sunday, January 16, 2022

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

@OldBear, I remember when everyone, and I mean everyone, had an iPhone 6. I felt like some kind of octogenarian with my iPhone 5. But then the original iPhone SE came out, with pretty much everything the iPhone 6 had but in a smaller, sleeker package. Suddenly I was the hip cool guy, and everyone else was the Luddite. LOL.

I think I've been lucky with my old 2012 iPad battery. I've seen devices with expanding batteries and it's a sad sight. Fortunately, Apple and many third-party hi-tech shops will replace them at a fairly decent price.

Submitted by PaulMartz on Sunday, January 16, 2022

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

@Dawn 👩🏻‍🦯, Your dad and I had a very similar experience. If you limit what you do with your device to one or two tasks, you can get by with very little memory. I never tried to put audiobooks or music on my 16GB iPad. I had my iPhone for that. Ironically, the fact that I limited my iPad tasks is probably another reason why I kept it so long. It worked at those few tasks I used it for.

But, like you, my next device isn't going to cut corners on memory. LOL.

Submitted by PaulMartz on Sunday, January 16, 2022

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

The more I use this iPad, the more I want to upgrade. IOS 10.3.3 has some serious flaws, such as randomly turning quick nav on and off. And while simply writing in Scrivener works fine, using multiple apps simultaneously and switching between them is really more than the old iPad can handle. I'll have to write a sequel to this blog when I'm up and running on the iPad Pro I just ordered.

Submitted by PaulMartz on Sunday, January 16, 2022

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Thanks @Wenwei. One of the many benefits of AppleVis is the amazing community. Even if Google Docs isn't everything we wish it were, at least we can all bang our heads against the wall together. LOL.